A Fin Slapping Finale

Our incredible day out on the water was coming to an end. I didn’t want to go back into port. I wanted to stay out there forever. We had seen so many animals; a mola mola sunfish, multiple whales, and some white sharks! I was really just being greedy at this point, but I couldn’t help it. Now that I had seen these amazing animals, all I wanted was to see more.

Like all good things though, this day had to come to an end. So we got ready to head back to Plymouth. But the ocean had other plans for us.

Off in the distance, something exciting was happening. A humpback whale was fin slapping, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, the whale was lifting its pectoral fin out of the water and slapping it back down, creating a splash. That splash is what caught the attention of Regina Asmutis-Silvia, the Senior Biologist and Executive Director for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s North American Office, and the woman leading the whale watching portion of our trip. She excitedly told us that this was very interesting behavior, and worth checking out. So our Captain changed direction and we headed away from shore, out towards the whale.


Once again the boat’s railings were lined with people, standing elbow to elbow, cameras out, waiting to see what this whale would do. And that could be anything, including stopping, according to Regina. As is the case with many of the ocean animals that scientists attempt to study, there is a lot we just don’t know about them. There are many possible theories that explain why whales do this, but they are theories. Even if we had known exactly what the whale was doing and why, who’s to say it would still be doing it by the time we got to it.

Anticipation hung in the air. The whale could stop at any minute. It could dive and swim off, and then we’d have to turn around and once again begin our trip home, a little disappointed because we were so close to being able to see something like this up close.

We were not disappointed. As we approached the humpback whale it continued to raise and drop its flipper, swimming on its side in a small circle. Then it turned and went the other way. It almost appeared to be showing off.

As soon as we began to think this was all the whale was going to do, and believe me, it was more than enough, the whale breached. The boat erupted in “awes” and cheers. All around me people were excitedly talking about the breach.

Photo by Wayne Davis

Photo by Wayne Davis

Most of us had never seen something like that before. Just to be that close to an animal of that size and majesty was humbling. To see it breach, was thrilling. And then, as if it really was showing off for the cheering crowd, the whale breached again. It seemed almost too incredible to be real. It was a beyond perfect end to such an amazing day. We could go back now.


Purple Smudge

The voice of the spotter pilot, Wayne Davis, crackled over the speakers of the boat. He could see the shark clearly from the air. Actually he could see a shark when it was within 18ft of the water’s surface. Which is pretty remarkable considering the murkiness of the waters off Cape Cod.

Looking down all I could see was the shadow of our boat on the opaque water. Earlier we had been able to see plankton, ethereally moving through the water, glowing blue. Now though, nothing. It was like trying to look through something solid. No matter how hard I strained my eyes, all I saw was green.

Wayne followed the shark, circling up in the clouds. He told the Captain exactly where to move the boat, telling him which direction to turn towards, how many boat lengths forward to go, and when to stop. The Captain followed his lead, expertly maneuvering the whale watching boat through the shallow water.


We were only 50 ft from shore, and according to Wayne, we were in the right spot. If we stayed put the shark would swim right by us. So we waited.

My heart raced. I leaned over the side of the boat, scanning the water below me for any signs of the shark. There were people all around me, lining the railings of the boat, waiting anxiously for the shark to appear.

Wayne’s voice had been replaced by that of scientist Megan Winton. She stood on the bow of the boat, sharing shark facts with us, waiting like the rest of us for the shark to come into view. And then it did. We couldn’t see it yet, but Megan could.

She called out the white shark’s movements like a sports announcer would an exciting play. I hung onto her every word, hoping the next one would mean that shark was near me. The closer it got to the boat the more excited I became.

The shark was very close now. It was coming from the left side of the boat and was going to swim right across the bow. Any minute we would all be able to see it. Suddenly there was a collective gasp from the left side of the boat. They could see the shark.

I fought the urge to run to the other side of the boat, to push my way through the crowd to catch a glimpse of the shark. It was coming my way. I just had to be patient, to wait just a few minutes longer, minutes that felt like hours

Photo by Atlantic White Shark Conservancy

Photo by Atlantic White Shark Conservancy

Then the people around me began to yell and point. I followed their fingers and there it was. A shadow moving through the water. “It looks like a purple smudge” Megan had told us, and she was right. As the shark swam by its outline became a little clearer. I could even make out its dorsal fin.

I couldn’t stop smiling. It was a white shark. It was incredible.

Photo by Lisa Hughes

Photo by Lisa Hughes

White Sharks and Whales

The line of passengers waiting to board the whale watching boat looked like a walking advertisement for all things shark. There were shark teeshirts and sweat shirts. There were silver sharks on necklaces, and shark jaws on baseball caps. There were earrings that made it look like a shark was taking a bite out of your ear, and even shark tattoos. And everywhere you looked the shark on the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy logo smiled back at you.

It was a cool September morning. Dense fog blanketed the marina, making it almost impossible to see anything out in the harbor. The boat rocked gently against its ropes, small waves lapping against its hull. Once everyone had boarded we set off on our almost two hour trek to Provincetown, in search of whales, and, if we were lucky, a white shark.

The trip was a collaboration between the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation. Its goal was to raise money to support the efforts of both advocacy groups, and to allow people to see something most of us had never seen before. It was only the second year of Expedition White Sharks and Whales, and both trips had sold out. Looking out over the sides of the boat into the blank whiteness of fog, it was hard to believe we would be able to see anything out there, but we were hopeful.


It’s such a strange feeling to have no sense of time or place, to see only the water beside the boat, and the vast whiteness beyond. If the captain had told us we were now in Alaska I think I would have believed him. Instead, of course, he told us we were almost in Truro, and that, according to our spotter pilot, there were blue skies ahead.

Slowly bits and pieces of the shoreline came into view, orange sand dunes and breaking waves, and with them came a sense of relief as we began to think the fog might actually clear. Somewhere in the sky above, we could hear the engine of the spotter plane. And then suddenly, the fog was gone.


We could see the plane now. It was flying along the shore, scouting for nearby sharks. The beautiful beaches of the Cape Cod National Seashore seemed to spread out endlessly in both directions. There was only a handful of people around, wading in the water or walking along the beach. They all stopped and watched us as we passed, knowing we were there to see something.

Maybe they thought there was a whale nearby. It was a reasonable assumption given that our boat was a whale watching boat and whales are so plentiful in these waters this time of year. So much so that the Plymouth Whale Watching website actually guarantees whale sightings on their trips. The swimmers might have cleared the water though, had they known we were looking for more than just whales that day.


As if on command a fin came out of the water, and slowly a Mola Mola sunfish floated into view. Not the shark we were hoping for, but an interesting animal none the less. A strange, flat looking fish, it swam by, on it’s side, lifting its fin out of the water, and putting it back down. To the people on the beach it must have looked like the dorsal fin of a great white, and they all gathered along the water’s edge to watch. On the boat we lined the railings taking pictures. And then, with a crackle of the speakers, came the announcement we had all been hoping for, the pilot had spotted a white shark near by, and we were going to find it.


Wild Chatham!

Chatham resident and nature photographer, John King, donated forty limited-edition signed prints of his poster ‘Wild Chatham’ to AWSC. Anyone who donates $100 or more to the Conservancy will receive a poster (while supplies last). Funds will go toward our Summer Camp Scholarship Program. Please visit our website (www.atlanticwhiteshark.org) to make a donation. 



Many thanks to John and Pam King for their generosity and support!

Learn From Great White Sharks on Super Bowl Sunday!

The great white shark is the largest predatory fish in the world! Discovery Channel gets footage of great whites feeding on a whale carcass. The sharks don’t feed in a frenzy, rather they swim around and size each other up and allow the biggest shark to eat first. AWSC encourages you to take this respectful approach at your Super Bowl buffet table today!

white shark eating whale

Click here to view Discovery Channel video: http://dsc.discovery.com/tv-shows/africa/videos/great-whites-devour-whale.htm


Embracing Great White Sharks in New England

The Conservation Law Foundation, a leader in ocean conservation, and Brian Skerry, award winning photojournalist, teamed up to form New England Ocean Odyssey which offers “a first-of-its-kind journey beneath New England’s waves.”

I recently wrote a piece for New England Ocean Odyssey about white sharks in New England. Together we hope to raise awareness to ensure the future of this magnificent species.

Greg shark photo


I’ve always been fascinated by the shark species that inhabit our oceans. As a young girl, I saw my first shark on a whale watch trip out of Newburyport, a basking shark slowly cruising by. As an adult, I’ve had incredible underwater experiences with sharks. I’ve seen great hammerheads and nurse sharks in Nicaragua, whale sharks in Mexico, and great whites in South Africa.

In South Africa, my husband and I were the first to jump in the cage when a great white shark was spotted near the boat. I ducked my head under water and there she was, swimming gracefully by, cautiously checking us out. It was awe-inspiring and absolutely love at first sight (for me, I can’t speak for the shark)!

Around the same time, great white sharks off Cape Cod were making headlines. 2009 marked the first time white sharks had been successfully tagged and tracked in Western North Atlantic waters. I was thrilled to know this amazing species was spending time close to our shores.

Last summer, I had a conversation with Dr. Greg Skomal from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) about his work with white sharks in our area. I was surprised to learn that the DMF does not directly fund white shark research, so Dr. Skomal and biologist John Chisholm, rely on outside help for shark projects. This sparked the idea to form a nonprofit that would support local shark research and education, and with that Atlantic White Shark Conservancy was established.

Over the last six months, I’ve spent a great deal of time talking to shark researchers and enthusiasts around the world.  I’ve learned a lot about the pressures facing numerous shark species globally (finning, overfishing, bycatch), as many populations have seen devastating declines.

Locally, I’ve begun spreading the word about our shark conservation work. What better place to gain support than in New England, where people are passionate about the marine environment. If they love whales, dolphins, and turtles, they must love sharks, right? Not necessarily. I’ve been told by people who care deeply about other marine species off the coast of Cape Cod, that they are not interested in shark conservation. Why the lack of concern for sharks? Fear. Come on New Englanders! We are of hearty stock and brave winters that would bring most people to tears. With regard to sharks, a quick Google search will give you stats on animals in the U.S. that are more likely to kill you than sharks (cows, dogs, horses).

I believe it’s time to face our fears, use our heads, and open our hearts to the beauty of the great white sharks that travel along our coastline. They certainly have more to fear from us than we do from them. Plus, white sharks are fascinating!

Great white sharks are one of a handful of sharks that are endothermic. These ‘warm-bodied’ sharks can maintain internal body temperatures higher than the outside water temperatures. They are part of a small group of sharks (Lamnids) whose eyes are proportionally larger than other shark species.  White sharks are known to spy hop, which involves peering above the surface of the water to take a look around. The eyes of a white shark are not black as coal, as the movie JAWS would have you believe, but instead the iris is denim blue! As an apex predator, white sharks sit at the top of the food chain and help maintain balance that is critical for a healthy ecosystem.

In New England, we are privileged to have such incredible marine wildlife so close to home, including the great white shark. There is very little known about these sharks. We have the opportunity to raise awareness and learn more about this magnificent species, in hopes of ensuring its future.

It is important to realize that the ocean ecosystem is all connected—from the tiniest zooplankton to the largest apex predator. If you love whales, dolphins, and turtles…I encourage you to embrace great white sharks!


For more information on New England Ocean Odyssey: http://www.newenglandoceanodyssey.org/about/

For information on the Conservation Law Foundation: http://www.clf.org/




Shark Sense

Science Sunday! The ampullae of Lorenzini are small vesicles and pores that form part of an extensive subcutaneous sensory network system. Each ampulla is a bundle of sensory cells that are enervated by several nerve fibers. These fibers are enclosed in a gel-filled tubule which has a direct opening to the surface through a pore. These vesicles and pores are found around the head of the shark and are visible to the naked eye. They appear as dark spots in the photo of a white shark head below. They detect the electrical impulses generated by the muscle contractions of nearby fish, seals, or other creatures. Recent research suggests that the ampullae may also allow the shark to detect changes in water temperature.